What is "Happiness"

Posted on 3/03/18

‘What is happiness?’ is a difficult question – one that’s almost nigh on impossible to answer with any real clarity. Ask a hundred people what happiness means to them, and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers. Whether rooted in specifics (happiness being anything from spending time with a good friend to the methodical process of making jam to watching the sheer, unbridled enthusiasm of a dog who needs little more than food, affection and a good runaround) or tongue in cheek statements (Rita Mae Brown’s “one of the keys to happiness is a bad memory,” anyone?), there are plenty of ways to tackle the topic.

But hey, the question’s there, so let’s see what we can unpick. The various dictionary definitions of happiness tend to rely on mention of particular ‘state’, ‘quality’ or ‘feeling’: one of happiness, joy, contentment etc (these words often used interchangeably, although they all mean slightly different things). All of this seems to suggest happiness as something transitory: that might exist, like light and dark, in the contrasts and shifts. Being permanently happy would perhaps be rather dull, partly because it would stop being remarkable. It’s also circumstantial, often affected by a variety of factors - some beyond control. From finances to work to personal life, all sorts of things come together to make up what we might think of as ‘happiness’. 

There are all sorts of other ways to tackle the word. As this exhaustive entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, the philosophical study of happiness tends to place it in one of two camps: either “a purely descriptive psychological term, akin to… ‘tranquility’” or “a value term, roughly synonymous with well-being or flourishing.”1

It’s a helpful division to have, given that it neatly makes clear the distinction between happiness as a fleeting ‘in the moment’ feeling associated with particular experiences, and happiness as a bedrock or general state of wellbeing (something Aristotle helpfully labeled as Eudomania.2) So, the fizz and thrill of a good date, the adrenaline hit of swimming in a cold lake, or the elation of dancing late into the night surrounded by good people – all of those are momentary and passing and wonderful. But what goes into the foundations of happiness when we’re talking about it in terms of longevity?

Perhaps the answer is easier than expected. It’s the stuff that makes us human: our sense of self as an individual, the community around us, our purpose, our resilience, our achievements, our general physical and psychological health, our inner contentment, and perhaps our understanding of our connection with the world around us. Of course, this list could extend into hundreds of different attributes and areas of life… But if you want to go into the specific science of happiness and positive psychology, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre is a great resource – full of a mixture of research and practical tools for increasing your own sense of emotional and social wellbeing3.

There’s perhaps a continuing overemphasis in society though on achieving ‘happiness’, as though this is a static end-point. The capitalist version of the tale suggests that happiness is something you can strive for and buy – and perhaps envy others for, with their smarter, shinier, wealthier, more beautiful lives. But depression and anxiety disorder are terms we sadly hear more and more, and the mental illness list keeps growing. Namely because, according to this BBC report, the explicit pursuit of happiness can, well, make people rather unhappy4. 

So, that’s more scattered questions and avenues of enquiry than actual answers. Which is perhaps only right for such a tricky concept – one that requires a willingness to sit with both the ups and the downs; that can be both skill and state of being; that has the capacity to develop and shift continually. No wonder we’re still fascinated with trying to pin it down. 



photo by: @oliviabee